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A Living Exhibit

K.C. the great horned owl

November 16, 2012

Have you heard of Benny the personable cockatoo? How about 11-foot-long anaconda Andy? What about Arnold the naughty raccoon or Sachindra the chattering myna bird?

If not, maybe you’ve heard of Rex the wallaby, who claimed fame in the 1960s by escaping his pen and hopping down Cherry Street. Or perhaps you’ll recall Iris the porcupine, who wowed visitors in the 1970s by twirling to the William Tell Overture.

If you haven’t guessed by now, these animals have been just a few of the stars of the Academy’s Live Animal Center. Whether flying, slithering, crawling, hopping, or posing for the camera, these animals comprise a living, breathing exhibit that stands in sharp contrast to the preserved specimens that populate the corridors of the museum.

Animals of our History

The Academy’s Live Animal Unit opened in the mid-1950s in a courtyard outside the museum. Prior to that, live animals were featured in special museum presentations. As the Center grew, students could watch animal-care demonstrations and view creatures such as Sheba the puma and Elmer the Brazilian monkey. Some smaller animals, including fishes, lizards, frogs, and a chinchilla, were displayed in a museum exhibit and starred in live animal shows.

In 1965, the Academy rehoused the animals in an updated Center in the museum’s basement. That’s where 1970s showman Roc the macaw hung out when he wasn’t climbing light poles during live animal shows. It’s also where a Burmese python hatched 27 eggs in 1985.

By the 1980s and 1990s, the Center was hosting smaller, more manageable creatures, many of which were unwanted exotic pets or injured animals unable to survive in the wild. Even with its novel accommodations, the Center was becoming crowded with its growing population. It was obvious to Senior Director of Education Jacquie Genovesi, who became head of the Center in 1994, that these small quarters impaired the animals’ quality of life.

Genovesi worked with the Academy’s Women’s Committee to raise the funds needed to transfer the animals to a state-of-the-art facility in 1997. With a bird room, mammal room, reptile room, kitchen, quarantine room, and public viewing area, this new space offered plenty of room for roaming.

“We made the Live Animal Center something the Academy could be proud of,” Genovesi says. “Now it’s a resource for visitors, and it’s a great training ground for people who want to care for animals.”

Ambassadors of Today

The new Live Animal Center is where, for the past 15 years, Manager of Living Exhibits Laura McRae has spent a great deal of time sharing her skills with eager learners. With support from volunteers, an off-site vet, and Academy staff, McRae and full-time keepers Bar Carter and Leigh Lightner must address the needs and personalities of all the Center’s inhabitants, from a turkey vulture with a 72-inch wingspan to a leopard gecko that weighs 0.1 pounds. They administer medications to elderly and sick animals, clean enclosures, groom and weigh animals, and craft balanced and specialized diets.

“We try to include as much variety as we can in the animals’ diets,” McRae explains. “For the parrots, the midday meal is fresh fruits and veggies, and we give them a bedtime snack. We rotate as many as 10 different vegetables throughout the week.”

Keepers also develop tailored enrichment plans to keep the animals happy and healthy. One day, a parrot might enjoy special music, a bunny will play with new toys, or the raptors will soak up “rain” during a power wash of their enclosures. The rain encourages the birds to preen their feathers as they would in the wild, explains McRae.

These enrichment activities prepare the animals for the spotlight. With help from Academy teacher naturalists, the animals teach about endangered species, habitats, exotic pet challenges, city animals, and backyard creatures.

“Animals help people to connect emotionally,” Genovesi says. “Research has proven that when you use an animal to communicate an educational message, people pay attention and retain information better.”

If you catch a live animal show or visit during November 2012, you’ll meet animals such as Tokala the fox, chinchillas Pocono and Pierce, and K.C. the great horned owl. Visit during Live Animal Discovery Weekend (November 23–25) to meet a keeper and see animal training in action. Throughout November, visitors ages 8 and up can take behind-the-scenes tours of the Live Animal Center.

Originally published in the Fall 2012 issue of Academy Frontiers. Photo by Paul Jamrogowicz (Drexel University).